by James Panero
The phrase “Inspired by the Motion Picture” does not generally inspire confidence on Broadway. More often than not, we’re talking about a popular movie repackaged for the discount crowd. But what if your inspiration is “An American in Paris,” the 1951 Academy Award-winning MGM musical starring Gene Kelly? And what if you are the English choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, one time dancer and resident artist at New York City Ballet?
In the case of “An American in Paris,” the new musical that opened this week at the Palace Theatre, we are talking about something truly inspiring. In his Cast Notes, Wheeldon says he “honors the artists whose film inspired this new stage version.” That film, directed by Vincente Minnelli from a script by Alan Jay Lerner, was a lightweight romance between an American painter Jerry Mulligan, who stayed in Paris after the liberation, and a French girl, Lise Bouvier. The plot revolves around a cast of supporting characters that includes Jerry’s society patron Milo Roberts (who is interested in more than his paintings), a successful French singer named Henri Baurel (who is engaged to Lise), and a composer friend named Adam Cook (who helps sort it all out).
What set the movie apart was its final fifteen minutes. In what has been called the greatest dance number on film, and with a production that cost of half a million dollars, the painter Jerry Mulligan, played by Kelly, dances with Lise, played by Leslie Caron, through a dream sequence of Paris as imagined through his artwork. The score for the number is George Gershwin’s 1928 symphonic poem, “An American in Paris,” which gives the film and the musical its name.
Wheeldon began here and built out his musical from this balletic denouement. A new book by Craig Lucas also adds some true grit to the story. The 1951 musical did little to acknowledge the war. For that matter, it barely acknowledged the twentieth century: Jerry still lives in the Paris of La bohème. On Broadway we are now clearly contending with the hangover of war, with characters with new backstories and new last names: Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope) is a Jewish refugee hidden by Henri’s family, who fought for the Resistance; Adam Hockberg (Brandon Uranowitz) is an injured Jewish American GI, Jerry is suffering from shell shock. Sometimes Lucas overly burdens the story: it was smart to recast Henri (Max von Essen) as a struggling singer, but an insinuation that he “does not fancy women” and therefore hides his own secret muddies the plot; Hockberg also overly plays up his own impotence.
Yet overall these additions give the musical a modern urgency that propels the performance. It starts in a swirl, with the Nazi flag of the occupation pulled down and turned back to the colors of the Republic, all in one flowing movement. With costumes and sets by Bob Crowley, the scene changes are seamlessly handled by the performers, who wheel out and dance around the mobile set pieces. Backdrop projections imagine Paris as a sketchbook that gets redrawn through each scene.
Robert Fairchild, the NYCB principal who, like his sister, has (temporarily?) traded Balanchine for Broadway, fills out Kelly’s shoes as Mulligan. Those are fast, muscular, and multitalented shoes to fill. While Kelly could perform equally well as singer, dancer, and actor, Fairchild is a dancer first and foremost, arguably one of the best ballet dancers of our day. His voice, however, is only serviceable as a soloist. The decision to add additional Gershwin songs for him to lead, such as “Fidgety Feet,” was a mistake. Additionally, no one else could ever have Kelly’s megawatt presence, and Fairchild’s theatrical range is limited, even compared to the other actors on stage.
Fortunately the musical is driven by its forceful choreography. For this the production looks much more closely than the film to the history of Parisian modernism. Here Mulligan is something of a Sunday painter until Milo Davenport (Jill Paice) convinces him to work in abstraction. A comical dance within the dance called “The Eclipse of Uranus” gives a nod to dance’s early avant-garde. As the play progresses, the sets also become more abstract, leading to a minimalist pas de deux between Jerry and Lise danced to Gershwin’s eponymous number. In this way the musical pays ultimate tribute to Gershwin’s radical 1928 tone poem. As Gershwin said of his composition, “My purpose here is to portray the impression of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city and listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere.” Here is a musical that makes it new all over again.
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In the space of three days, New York heard recitals by two British mezzos. I can still say “British” because Scotland is not out of the Union (although separatists persist). On Friday night, Karen Cargill, the Scotswoman, sang in Weill Recital Hall. (For my review of that event, go here.) On Sunday afternoon, Sarah Connolly, an Englishwoman, sang in Alice Tully Hall.
Earlier on Sunday afternoon, Dorothea Röschmann, the German soprano, sang in Carnegie Hall. (My review here.) It was a banner weekend for singing. How was a guy supposed to watch Jordan Spieth win the Masters?
Sarah Connolly has the traits long associated with her breed, by which I mean, British mezzos. Among them are taste, dignity, and poise. The first half of her program was entirely in German, beginning with the three “Ellen” songs of Schubert. In general, she sang them confidently and richly, smoothly and movingly. There is something about her singing that makes you sit up straighter. There is a purity, an integrity, about her.
Many years ago, a critic described Kurt Masur’s conducting of something as “almost moral.” I can’t remember who the critic was, else I would name him. Nor can I remember the piece that Masur had conducted. But I thought the phrase “almost moral” was exactly right. And the phrase came to me as I heard Connolly sing.
The third of the “Ellen” songs is “Ave Maria,” maybe the most famous song in the world, along with “Happy Birthday” and a few others. I will tell you a secret: I find it trying to sit through “Ave Maria.” First, I have heard it too many times, and second, it’s so damn long. But it seemed new when Connolly sang it—not tired at all, and not too long. I sort of rediscovered its greatness.
Following the Schubert, Connolly sang the Rückert Lieder of Mahler, same as Karen Cargill had in Weill Recital Hall. Connolly did not put a foot wrong. She was elegant, strong, subtle, and touching. She demonstrated superb technical control. In her final song, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” she took long, long breaths. Her singing of this song was utterly transporting.
As she sang, I somehow felt that she had her great predecessors, Ferrier and Baker, behind her. This heritage is both a burden, I imagine, and a help. Is that contradictory? Yes, but possibly true all the same.
The afternoon’s pianist was Joseph Middleton, who was a fitting partner for such a fine singer. He could be relied on to obey the musical line. And he was especially good at soft playing. He played the penultimate note of “Ich bin der Welt . . .” very, very softly. I figured he could not get under that—or that the last note would fail to sound. He did get under it, and it did sound.
For the second half of her recital, Connolly turned to her native language. She began with Copland’s Dickinson songs, or half of them—he wrote twelve, and she sang six. She did not include the song that may be the best of them: “Heart, we will forget him.”
And may I give you an irrelevant and snotty aside? Copland’s “There came a wind like a bugle” is not nearly as good as the song on the same text by my late friend Lee Hoiby.
At any rate, Connolly provided an example of good, honest singing. No note was false in this Copland group, in any sense. I thought of something I have often said about singing: “Beautiful or interesting voice; technical security; musical understanding; a dose of charisma—that’s pretty much the whole ballgame.” Connolly has the whole ballgame, pretty much.
And when she sang the Copland song about the organ—“I’ve heard an organ talk sometimes”—I again thought of that phrase “almost moral.”
Connolly finished her printed program with Elgar’s Sea Pictures. When she was young, did she listen to Dame Janet’s recording about a thousand times, same as the rest of us? Probably so. In any event, she sang the Pictures with utter trueness, soundness, and conviction. Is that because she’s English? Or because she’s a good singer?
For years, I have spoken against the concept of nationality as destiny. I must say, however, that being English could not have hurt this mezzo.
By the end of the Pictures, she was running out of gas, vocally, but she sang a couple of encores—the first being “Ombra mai fu,” from Handel’s Xerxes, or Serse. (Many know the tune as “Handel’s Largo.”) Being a mezzo, she does not sing the aria in its familiar key of G. To me, it always sounds wrong out of G. But there was nothing wrong with Connolly’s singing of it: She was neat, tender, and moving. The aria sounded almost like a hymn, “almost moral” indeed.
Never mind that the character in the opera is paying tribute to a tree . . .
Connolly bade farewell with a Baker number, “King David,” by Herbert Howells. I would have liked her to end on something less somber—maybe some version of “Pretty Ring Time” or even “Kitty My Love”? In any case, she sang “King David” honestly, movingly, righteously. There is no artifice or guile in this woman. Not a trace of falsity.
Perhaps I should now think of “King David” as a Connolly number.
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Last Friday night, Karen Cargill gave a recital in Weill Recital Hall. If you’re going to give a recital, a recital hall is a good place to give it in. I wrote of the performer in question two seasons ago. She had appeared at the Metropolitan Opera. I said,
“Les Troyens is filled with minor roles in which singers can make major impressions. Have you ever heard of Karen Cargill, a Scottish mezzo? I hadn’t either. She was Anna, Dido’s sister, and made a huge impression. She has a big, juicy, Met-sized voice—a little contralto-ish. And she knows what to do with that magnificent instrument.”
Cargill can indeed sound contralto-like. These days, no one has “contralto” after her name, outside of Ewa Podles. This is a mystery to me. An entire vocal category can’t just disappear, like a species, can it?
At Weill, Cargill rolled out a rich, royal carpet of sound. Her chest voice is magnificent. And her head voice is sweet and useful. Sometimes you have to float or flit, when singing. Moreover, it was nice to hear a big voice in this small hall, Weill. The volume was turned up.
Honestly, Cargill probably used about half the volume she has.
She opened her program with five songs of Alma Mahler. What were they doing there? Were they on the program because the composer was married to Gustav? (And to Walter and to Franz?) Because she is a curiosity? Do we feel the need to make some political statement? (Similar questions can be asked about Clara Schumann.)
In my judgment, Alma’s songs are quite good, having character and craft. They need no special pleading.
By the way, there was a time when people—certainly Americans—knew Alma because of a Tom Lehrer song. Alma’s Fünf Lieder may outlast Lehrer. In fact, they probably have already.
Cargill sang them sensibly and beautifully. She is not a forcer of the issue, not an overinterpreter. When soft, her voice tended to turn fuzzy, but this did little harm. Her pianist, Simon Lepper, was sensitive in the Alma Mahler songs and all throughout the recital.
“Sensitive” is a word so often applied to accompanists, it is almost a putdown. But sensitivity is good, in piano playing and other fields of music, and life.
Cargill next sang the Rückert Lieder of Mahler—Gustav, that is. The composer left no particular order for these songs. Performers arrange all sorts of lineups. I have my favorite, but I’m not wedded to it. What is important, I think, is that “Um Mitternacht” come somewhere in the middle and that the set end with “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.” Cargill placed “Um Mitternacht” second to last. But at least she ended with “Welt,” a song that is difficult, if not impossible, to follow.
I could pick at Cargill’s singing of the Rückert Lieder. For example, I think the first line of “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” should be sung fairly straight, with its rhythm uncutesified. But Cargill was generally satisfying. Especially good was “Um Mitternacht,” which had its due midnight quality. It also had an angry bluntness. The song was properly disturbing.
Opening the second half of the recital were the Wesendonck Lieder of Wagner—usually sung by sopranos, but not closed to others. Cargill tended to sing in one tone or color. But, oh, what a tone, what a color! She did not sing the songs preciously, which I appreciated. She (and Simon Lepper) kept them moving along.
About “Träume,” the ending song, the question to ask is, “Did it transport?” Well, sort of, I guess. The answer must depend on the individual listener.
Last on the printed program was a set of Grieg, his six best songs, probably. I had a concern about Cargill: Would she be able to sing the light and gay ones lightly and gaily? Or is she just too big, royal, and contralto-like? No, she filled the bill in every song.
And they are delightful and enchanting songs indeed. Why more singers don’t sing them, I have trouble understanding. We won’t have Anne Sofie von Otter and Solveig Kringelborn forever.
I was longing to hear this Scotswoman, Karen Cargill, sing something in English. Her entire program was in German. At encore time, she sang a song from her homeland, “An Eriskay Love Lilt,” from Songs of the Hebrides (collected by Marjory Kennedy-Fraser). “Sad I am, without thee,” goes the song.
Before she sang it, Cargill announced that she was dedicating it to a friend of hers, Maria Radner, who was killed last month on Germanwings Flight 9525. Indeed, our program booklet informed us that the whole recital was dedicated to her.
Cargill sang “An Eriskay Love Lilt” with gentle, sad affection. And how beautiful those Scottish r’s were.
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Anne-Sophie Mutter | Yefim Bronfman | Lynn Harrell
Last night, Carnegie Hall staged a concert of “The Mutter-Bronfman-Harrell Trio.” That’s what it said on the program. In the old days, the usual order for a piano trio was pianist-violinist-cellist. In fact, a famous story is told.
Heifetz complained that his name came second, not first. Rubinstein said, “Look, Jascha, that’s the way it is. If God were the violinist, the trio would be known as ‘Rubinstein-God-Piatigorsky.’”
In any case, Anne-Sophie Mutter was the violinist last night, and Yefim Bronfman the pianist, and Lynn Harrell the cellist. In former times, Mutter and Harrell played with André Previn, who was married to Mutter.
Harrell was once known as the son of his father, Mack Harrell, a prominent singer (baritone). Today, Lynn is a senior statesman of music. Mack is dimly remembered. That’s the way it is, as Rubinstein (may have) said.
Often, celebrity chamber ensembles—ensembles composed of star soloists—don’t work very well. Better to have players who may not be famous, individually, but who work together full time. On the other hand, the stars sometimes shine.
Last night’s program consisted of two major works, Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B flat, Op. 97, known as the “Archduke,” and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50, composed “in memory of a great artist,” i.e., Nikolai Rubinstein.
The Beethoven did not begin promisingly, to the extent that anything begun by the great Yefim Bronfman can begin unpromisingly. The pianist did not make his best sound. Moreover, he was reticent. Is that because he was trying to be a “chamber player”? Also, he went in for sudden crescendos and decrescendos, not especially musical, and not necessary. Throughout the first movement, he would commit some harsh accents, contradictory of the musical line. That is un-Bronfman.
Did he do anything right? Of course, many things. For example, he is an outstanding triller.
The violinist, Mutter, did not make her best sound. She scratched along in a pedestrian manner. Harrell did not make his best sound—it was sometimes wan, sometimes fuzzy. Also, his passagework was stiff.
In this first movement, the players basically thought and played together. They were competent. But did they do anything special? Not really.
The Scherzo, which should sparkle, did not. It was more like work. Not quite dentistry, but work all the same. String sounds continued to be poor. Bronfman committed some more of his harsh accents, perhaps in an effort to liven things up. On the whole, he played in the meat-and-potatoes way he sometimes adopts.
The meat and potatoes is pretty good, mind you—but Bronfman knows how to impart more magic, more music.
He began the slow movement in nice hymn-like fashion. You could imagine more warmth, though. For the last movement, he set a proper tempo, Allegro moderato, just as the composer asks. This movement had some of its jaunty character. It was, you know—okay. Bronfman ended the piece with his trademark bear-like chords.
The “Archduke” Trio is one of the greatest works in the entire chamber repertoire, but you would not have known it from this performance. The playing was sleepy, workaday, dull. By about the middle of the second movement, I would have taken my chances on a Smith-Jones-Brown trio over these stars.
But you never write off a concert—that, I have learned, over the years. Not infrequently, players stage a comeback, which is what happened last night. The Tchaikovsky A-minor was quite good.
In a sense, Bronfman took over, making Tchaikovsky’s piece a kind of piano concerto, which it sort of is anyway. (The composer wrote a couple of those.) Bronfman was not going to let the evening be a total dud.
Two seasons ago, the Emerson String Quartet played a concert in this same hall, Carnegie. They have never been worse, I’m sure. They were sub-professional. Then Bronfman came on to join them in the Brahms piano quintet—and sort of shamed them into playing better. He elevated them, put the fear of God in them.
The Tchaikovsky last night was a more equal affair than I am implying. Mutter and Harrell did their parts, unquestionably (especially Mutter). But Bronfman was the catalyst, as the pianist must be in that piece, really.
He played with tremendous authority. His big playing—his fff playing—reminded me of his handling of Tchaikovsky’s Grand Sonata in G. No one is better at that oceanic effect. So too, Bronfman can provide all the delicacy needed.
The first movement, from all three players, had the right kind of Romanticism, a Romanticism with restraint. They had some difficulty sustaining momentum—the music sagged a bit—but this was not a serious problem.
To the violinist, Tchaikovsky gives some strong, noble lines—and Mutter played them with due strength and nobility. She ended the first movement with some sour intonation, however. It hurt the ear, as such intonation does.
There are just two movements in this work. The second is a very long theme and variations. Bronfman played the theme with simplicity—a pleasant simplicity. Cursed be those pianists who fuss over the theme, as too many do. Throughout the variations, all three players were alive. They had woken up. Mutter played like the star she is; Harrell rose to meet his partners. Virtuosic and scintillating variations were virtuosic and scintillating. Ghostly and funereal variations were ghostly and funereal.
You had not heard a real performance of the “Archduke,” I would say. But you heard a real performance of the Tchaikovsky (with the pianist leading the way).
The three returned for an encore, the fast movement—brief and spiky—from Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor. I have heard it more incisive and more “Soviet.” But this playing was a far and welcome cry from the evening’s opening.
Let me close with a remark on La Mutter’s appearance. This is slightly delicate territory. ASM has long been one of the most beautiful women in the world, playing aside. For thirty years, we have seen her bare back, shoulders, and arms. Will there come a time when she covers up? Surely. When will that time be? And who will tell her? Or will she just know?
I told you it was delicate . . .
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Graham Nickson, Tree of Birds, 2014
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This week: Fishermen, book launches, and Americans in Paris.
Fiction: The Fishermen: A Novel, by Chigozie Obioma (Little, Brown and Company): This strange, imaginative debut probes the nature of belief and the power of family bonds. Set in 1990s Nigeria, the story is narrated by Benjamin, the youngest of four brothers. Benjamin is nine years old when his father departs for a distant job, leaving behind his wife and six children. Despite his stern admonitions, the four oldest brothers take advantage of his extended absence to skip school and go fishing in the ominous, forbidden Omi-Ala river. There they encounter a dangerous local madman, who convinces the eldest of the brothers that he is destined to die at the hands of one of his siblings. —CE
Nonfiction: KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, by Nikolaus Wachsmann (Farrar, Straus & Giroux): Nikolaus Wachsmann, the professor of modern European history at Birkbeck College, University of London, has completed one of the most complete accounts of the Nazi concentration camp that we have available today, starting with their creation in 1933 until their last days. By examining the development and expansion of the Nazi concentration camps during their time in use, KL provides a penetrating look into one of World War II’s most horrific aspects. —RH
Poetry: Book Launch and Poetry Reading with John Poch (Friday, April 17): Join the editors and friends of The New Criterion in celebrating the publication of John Poch's Fix Quiet, winner of the 2014 New Criterion Poetry Prize. Mr. Poch will read a selection from the book. The event will take place at our offices; call us (212.247.6980) to RSVP. —CE
Art: “Spectrum” at the Betty Cuningham Gallery (April 11-May 22): Over forty years ago, almost at the moment that Graham Nickson arrived in Italy to paint as a recipient of the Rome Prize, his car was burglarized of all supplies and preparatory work. With nothing left to go on, he climbed on to the roof of the American Academy and began to paint the sunset. Nickson has been painting in this way ever since, daring to capture nature's great chroma in watercolor and oil. Now in Nickson's first exhibition at Betty Cuningham are twenty-four watercolors of his "experience of coming dawn or falling dusk," along with a single, monumental oil on canvas. The work confirms, as I wrote in 2011, that Nickson is "heir apparent to the early American modernists Charles Burchfield and Arthur Dove, with synesthetic work that manages to both radiate and rumble." —JP
Music: Cavalleria Rusticana / Pagliacci at the Metropolitan Opera (April 14-May 8), and the Mutter-Bronfman-Harrell Trio at Carnegie Hall (Tuesday, April 14): Opening at the Metropolitan Opera on Tuesday night is a new production of the classic double-bill of two verismo masterpieces, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. Marcelo Álvarez takes on both lead tenor roles, while George Gagnidze, the Met's go-to Scarpia for the last few runs of Tosca, sings the antagonists Alfio and Tonio. Fabio Luisi conducts the gripping scores by Mascagni and Leoncavallo. If the violent drama of those two pieces is too much, Tuesday at Carnegie Hall could be just as rewarding. Anne-Sophie Mutter, Yefim Bronfman, and Lynn Harrell will join forces to present two towering works of the piano trio repertoire, Beethoven's "Archduke" trio and Tchaikovsky's trio in A minor. —ECS
Other: An American In Paris at the Palace Theater: Even beyond the prodigious talent of Robert Fairchild, the NYCB principal who, like his sister, has (temporarily?) traded Balanchine for Broadway, what makes "An American in Paris, which opens this week, such a smash is the direction and choreography of Christopher Wheeldon and the sets and costumes of Bob Crowley. A synergy of collaborative innovation drives this production in a swirl of movement and color. With a thorough rewriting of the iconic movie musical of 1951, "An American in Paris" combines the spectacle of MGM with the sensibility of the Ballets Russes and the sonic innovation of George Gershwin's eponymous 1928 tone poem. —JP
From the archive: Poetry, a prognosis, by Dick Davis: What is the state of poetry today?
From our latest issue: Attention Crisis, by Ian Tuttle: A review of The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction by Matthew B. Crawford.
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May I begin with a personal note? In the fall of 2006, Dorothea Röschmann, the German soprano, gave a recital in Zankel Hall. I had an out-of-town engagement and therefore could not cover the recital. This made me cross, because I regarded Röschmann as one of the best singers of our time, and I had never heard her in a solo recital—only in opera and oratorio, and I believe in a group recital.
I let my hosts in the other town know what a sacrifice I was making. I was probably a little whiny. Fortunately, my hosts were thankful, not scornful.
Yesterday, Röschmann was in Carnegie Hall for an afternoon of Purcell. The program offered excerpts from The Fairy Queen and King Arthur, and the whole of Dido and Aeneas. This third work is an operatic masterpiece, and relatively brief: It takes less than an hour. That makes it several hours shorter than Berlioz’s Troyens, which is on the same theme. Of course, Berlioz gives you a delicious love duet. Purcell’s Aeneas has little to do. He barely deserves to share the title.
The orchestra at Carnegie Hall was Les Violons du Roy, joined by its associate choir, La Chapelle de Québec. These forces are normally conducted by Bernard Labadie, their founder, but on this occasion were conducted by Richard Egarr, the Brit who is in charge of the Academy of Ancient Music. He is a musician—a harpsichordist-conductor—in the Pinnock-Hogwood vein. That is a fine vein to be part of.
Les Violons du Roy sounded a little small in this big hall, smaller than they have sounded in Zankel Hall. But they are a very good band, and they gave pleasure. Now and then, they were ragged, but they never went off the rails (at least not for long). They played the dances from The Fairy Queen with a stomping gaiety. The singers performed ably, both as a group and as individuals.
But the afternoon belonged, let’s face it, to Röschmann. She is why we were all there, I think, on a sunny Sunday.
Her first assignment was to sing the lament from The Fairy Queen, “O let me weep.” Dido has the big lament, of course—but this junior lament was kind of a warm-up. Röschmann sang as she typically does, although I can’t remember having heard her sing in English. She was in tune. She was unfaltering. She was beautiful of voice. She was understanding. She was expressive. She was “impactful,” as they say these days. (Too ugly a word to apply to Röschmann.) The plain truth is, she was pretty much perfect (and I say “pretty much” as a reflexive hedge).
Here is a further note: She knew exactly when to supply vibrato and when to withhold it.
After intermission came Dido and Aeneas. The singers used books, which I did not think was necessary or desirable, concert performance or no concert performance. The cast did a little acting, and appropriate acting. Anyway, the books were of little import.
Dido is not a one-woman show, quite. You have Aeneas. You have the handmaid Belinda (of “Thy hand, Belinda” fame). You have some weird sisters. And you have some others. Everyone in yesterday’s performance was competent at worst and excellent at best.
But let me cut to the chase, i.e., to Röschmann. She was stunning—stunningly good.
I have written about her so much over the years, I have practically nothing left to say. But perhaps I could mention this: I had never quite noticed what an effective lower register she has. On a C, for example—low C—she sounded almost mezzo-y. She often sounded chesty and dusky. Moreover, she can unleash power on you. She’s a lyric, yes, but a lyric who can attack, when she feels like it.
She took the Lament—I assume she was responsible for the tempo—unusually slowly. But her tempo worked, in spades. She took some unusual breaths, frequent breaths. Those worked, too. And she employed a variety of colors.
Her singing of the Lament was tasteful and elegant, as you would have expected it to be. But it was also heartbreaking, wrenching—full of operatic drama. I might have expected her to be too “perfect.” Too tasteful and elegant to get the full power out of the Lament. But she was tastefully, elegantly raw, if you will accept such a notion.
You can go for many a moon without hearing singing so good. I hope Röschmann will record the opera, and record it live, if she hasn’t already. Man cannot live on Flagstad alone. Playing Belinda to Flagstad, as you will recall, was Schwarzkopf—and for many years I have called Röschmann a Schwarzkopf of our time. A singer who excels in opera, particularly Mozart, and who is a top exponent of lieder.
As I opened with a personal note, I will close with one. Last summer, I heard Röschmann in Fierrabras, a Schubert opera, in Salzburg. She did not sound like herself. “Uh-oh,” I thought. “Is Röschmann finished?” They don’t last forever, obviously. Yesterday confirmed that she is not finished, far from it.
In any event, I regard her as a historic singer, and singing musician. People will in the future, so you might as well start now. Get ahead of the consensus!
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Swan Lake postage stamp from the USSR, 1961
Recent links of note:
'The truth is hard': an interview with Roger Scruton
How to navigate the art world
Frank Huang to succeed Glen Dicterow as New York Philharmonic concertmaster
This portentous composition: Swan Lake's place in Soviet politics
Maya Angelou's new stamp uses a quote that may not be entirely hers
*This quote may not be entirely hers
From our pages:
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Francisco Goya, Francisco Goya y Lucientes, Pintor, 1799.
Since Renaissance humanism first made it acceptable—even imperative—for artists to draw attention to themselves, creative types have complied and produced many forms of what curator James Clifton calls “ego-documents.” With the advent of the printing press, the engraving became one of the most prolific forms of the ego-document. And since most engravings are collaborations between the artist and the engraver, that’s two ego gratifications for the price of one. When printmakers began to reproduce paintings as prints, the effect was multiplied. Three exhibitions at the Fralin Museum of Art in Charlottesville, Virginia, describe not only the trajectory of printmaking history, but also the many ways in which an artist might document his ego.
Figures for the Soul, the exhibition consisting of a first rotation of fourteen pieces, covers the first generation of master engravers, whose work elevated printmaking to an art. Both Martin Schongauer and Albrecht Dürer were sons of goldsmiths, who transposed decorative techniques into engravings of such imaginative power that they came to rival paintings. As shown by two examples from his Large Passion series: The Flagellation of Christ (c.1496–1497) and Christ’s Descent Into Limbo (1510), Dürer was unmatched when it came to woodcut engraving. In the former, the taunts endured by the stoical Christ, his classicized figure clearly influenced by the artist’s trips to Rome, seem almost audible. The latter depicts that mysterious interregnum between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection when Christ descended into hell and rescued the souls caught in limbo. Adam holds Christ’s cross unfazed by the fearsome demons roiling to his right. Dürer’s repeated use of archways and vaulting heightens the scene’s anxious and claustrophobic nature.
Albrecht Dürer, The Scourging of Christ (The Flagellation of. Christ) from the Engraved Passion series (1507-1512), 1512.
Portrait of the Artist, 1525-1825, reminds us that until the late Renaissance, portrait painting was an exception. However, Jacob Neeffs’s etching and engraving of Self-Portrait of Anthony van Dyck (c.1630/1645) depicts van Dyck’s head atop a lifeless pedestal, an uneasy mix of naturalism and memorializing. Van Dyck’s remarkable Pieter Bruegel the Younger (etching and engraving, c.1630) altered public perception by giving an artist whose work was considered rustic and coarse a patrician appearance. In his engraving of Pierre Mignard (1690–1700), Gérard Edelinck depicts Louis XIV’s premier peintre du roy as serene and unapproachable by using the oval frame and royal seal usually reserved for royalty and statesmen. Contrast this with William Hogarth’s Gulielmus Hogarth (etching and engraving, 1748/1749), also in an oval frame, but one interrupted by humanizing attributes like a palette (bearing Hogarth’s trademark “line of beauty”), an engraver’s burin, and a sensitive portrait of the artist’s pug dog, Trump.
Hogarth made his reputation as a satirist, but Goya raised the stakes with his Francisco Goya y Lucientes, Pintor (etching, aquatint, drypoint, and burin, 1799). With a withering gaze of contempt, Goya depicts himself as a gentleman and member of the very class so scathingly ridiculed in the prints known as Los Caprichos. As David Rosand notes, “Goya turned the inventive powers of the artist back upon his audience with indicting moral force. Pressing the limits of poetic license, he effectively annulled the contract between artist and society that had sustained the development of the capriccio.”
In the seventeenth century, printmakers frequently concentrated on images designed to burnish their social status. Against a background of the studio or the academy, artists could display their virtuosity by depicting vast scenes of multiple figures in various attitudes, showing their mastery of the latest technology and exalting the communion enjoyed by creative minds. This could take an allegorical form as in Sébastien Leclerc’s The Academy of Sciences and Fine Arts (engraving and etching, 1698) where art gains credibility by being skillfully integrated with science and the liberal arts.
Rembrandt and Adrien von Ostade preferred more intimate views of the artist at work, emphasizing the pragmatic concerns of an artist’s career. In his A Man Drawing From a Cast (etching, 1641) and The Goldsmith (etching, 1655), Rembrandt links apprenticeship and education with the divine gift of creativity. Van Ostade’s The Painter (etching, c.1647), possibly a self-portrait, makes the point that no matter how talented one may be, any twist of fate might relegate the artist to a broken easel, a tattered smock, and a few urchins mixing pigment underneath a grubby staircase. The sweetness of the rococo setting of Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki’s Cabinet d’un peintre (etching, 1771) is undercut by subtle clues illustrating the riskiness of a career in art. Seated near a window, Chodowiecki, a painter, printmaker, and art dealer, peers grimly over his spectacles at his wife and five children, recording the shabby scene and no doubt wishing that he could move some of the inventory clogging the room’s walls.
Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki, Cabinet d'un peintre, 1771.
Some artists’ genius tended in other, less sobering, directions. The supremely talented Hendrick Goltzius was also something of a prankster, adept at engraving in the styles of Dürer and Lucas van Leyden and known to age these imitations artificially and pass them off as authentic works by the masters. One such “emulation” of Dürer is Goltzius’s The Circumcision from the Life of the Virgin (engraving, 1594), an accomplished scene of shocking realism, right down to the glittering blade and the squirming Christ child. Goltzius himself boldly gazes at the viewer over the shoulder of the rabbi holding Jesus.
Much of what is asserted by the earlier two exhibitions receives yet another interpretation when viewed in the context of a third exhibition, Lucian Freud: Etchings. Certain truths, however, remain: that every painter paints himself, that expressive forms of portraiture tend to be more psychologically astute, and that portraits conceal as much as they reveal.
Lucian Freud, Head of an Irishman, 1999.
Although Freud first attempted etching in the 1940s, he quickly dropped the practice, returning only in the 1980s. The works on view here mark the first comprehensive exhibition of Freud’s etchings. As with his more well-known paintings, the etchings focus on the human body in various physical conditions. Unimpressed by classical beauty, Freud is more an heir to the representational naturalism of the Flemish artists of the Northern Renaissance, works like Ghirlandaio’s Portrait of an Old Man and His Grandson (1490) as well as the unflinching self-portraits of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and many others.
Freud treated etching like drawing, propping a copper plate on an easel like a canvas and requiring his subjects to be present for multiple sittings. The developing relationship between Freud and his subjects was integral to the creative process. He expected his sitters to be as committed to the final product as he was. For example, Freud’s dealer William Acquavella relates a story about Freud working on a painting of Mick Jagger’s then-wife Jerry Hall nursing a baby. When Hall failed to show up for two sittings, Freud had his assistant, artist David Dawson, sit in her place and the painting went through a “sex change.” Jagger was furious but Freud refused to restore Jerry to the painting. (The final product, Large Interior, Notting Hill, does indeed show a nude Dawson with a baby at his breast.)
Freud’s sensuous paint handling translates well to the etching medium where he could more freely explore surface, texture, and line. His meticulous “naked portraits” of his whippet Pluto, or Big Sue, a heavy-set woman he met at a British unemployment office, or Leigh Bowery, a bald-headed performance artist, have an unexpected dynamism and immediacy. The etchings’ frenetic crosshatching and heavy lines cause light to play across the images in a manner that suggest movement and incipient change. This heightened effect of the artist’s hand seems to make the artist more present, fulfilling Freud’s claim that all his work was autobiographical.
What one critic referred to as Freud’s characteristic blend of “lyricism and repulsiveness” finds a more bracing expression in his etchings than in his paintings. Freed from the exigencies of that medium, Freud experiments more openly with scale and perspective. Rather than the pensive alienation of so many of his paintings, we sense in his etched portraits a lighter touch, almost a whimsical meditation on the varieties of human appearance.
“What do I ask of a painting? I ask it to astonish, disturb, seduce, convince.” What Lucian Freud expected of painting can also be expected of printmaking, an art form that is much more than a mere ego-document.
View Figures for the Soul (Rotation I), through April 12, 2015; A Portrait of the Artist, 1525–1825: Prints From the Collection of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, through June 7, 2015; Lucian Freud: Etchings, through April 19, 2015, at the Fralin Museum of Art, University of Virginia, Charlottesville.
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Nancy Hagin, Green Group, 2014
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This week: Monarchs, murderers, and lunatics.
Fiction: I Refuse, by Per Petterson, translated by Don Bartlett (Greywolf Press): Petterson weaves a tale of two men whose accidental meeting one morning recalls their boyhood thirty-five years ago. In chapters that switch between time periods and narrators, the history of the boys’ relationship unfolds. Tommy grows up in a rural Norwegian town, separated from his sisters after standing up to their abusive father. Having lost his family, he and Jim become inseparable until a chance event on a frozen lake one night during their teens changes the balance of their friendship. —CE
Nonfiction: Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land, by Robert Crawford (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux): Robert Crawford (Professor of Modern Scottish Literature at the University of St. Andrews and author of The Bard, an autobiography of Robert Burns), has written a highly detailed account of Eliot’s early life, starting with his childhood in St. Louis and ending with his publication of The Waste Land. Using a great assortment of archival information, new interviews, and personal papers, Crawford creates a complete and commanding portrait of the poet. Learning about Eliot’s upbringing, insecurities, and difficult marriage, among other personal difficulties, gives Eliot lovers a new lens through which to read his poetry. –RH
Poetry: The Lunatic, by Charles Simic (Ecco): The prolific former U.S. Poet Laureate and 1990 Pulitzer Prize–winner gives readers seventy new, grimly playful poems that revolve primarily around nostalgia, aging, and unappreciated everyday wonders. —CE
Art: “2015 Invitation Exhibition of Visual Arts” at the American Academy of Arts and Letters (through April 12): There are usually only two short periods a year when the esteemed American Academy of Arts and Letters, located at 155th Street and Broadway, opens its doors to the public for free exhibitions. The first of the season, and now in its last week, is the "Invitational Exhibition of Visual Arts." This year's Invitational features paintings, sculptures, photographs, and works on paper by a promising selection of forty contemporary artists, including Tamara Gonzales, James Sienna, and Andrew Piedilato, nominated by Academy members. The Invitational also allows visitors to catch the Academy's reconstruction of the Charles Ives Studio, otherwise only open by appointment. For a history of this fascinating cultural complex, see my review of last year's Invitational. When planning a visit, stay mindful of the limited hours (Thurs-Sun, 1-4pm) and be sure to stop in the singular Hispanic Society next door. —JP
Music: Karen Cargill at Carnegie Hall (Friday, April 10): The rising mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill (you may have heard her as Waltraute in Götterdämmerung at the Met a couple of seasons ago) makes her New York recital debut at Weill Hall on Friday, presenting a superb collection of lieder with the pianist Simon Lepper. Mahler's Rückert Lieder and Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder make a powerful pair to anchor the program, rounded out by Alma Mahler's Five Songs from 1910 and Grieg's Six Songs, Op. 48. —ECS
Other: The Penguin Monarchs: The English publisher Allen Lane has embarked on a fetching new series of brief biographies of English Monarchs (plus one Lord Protector, in the person of Oliver Cromwell). The first batch looks in on the lives of Charles I (Mark Kislansky), Henry VIII (John Guy), Edward VI (Stephen Alford), George V (David Cannadine), and George VI (Philip Ziegler). Coming later this month are lives of Victoria, Henry II, James II, and others. Over the next few years the series will provide brisk biographies of English rulers from the Houses of Essex and Denmark (Athelstan, Aethelred the Unready, Cnut, and Edward the Confessor) right up through the House of Windsor (which changed its name from the Saxe-Coburg & Gotha in the Great War, thus prompting the Kaiser’s one recorded joke: He was, he said, looking forward to seeing Shakespeare’s play The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg & Gotha.) Judging by its initial volumes, the series will be a genuine contribution to public knowledge. The writers are authoritative and the narrative pace is brisk and informative. An added bonus is a signature of pictures and illustrations. I plan to get the entire run. –RK
From the archive: How to murder a Bolivian Boy, by Anthony Daniels: Considering bioethics & Peter Singer upon the publication of Culture of Death: The assault on Medical Ethics in America by Wesley J. Smith.
From our latest issue: Langston Hughes’s two faces, by Michael Anderson: A new selection of Langston Hughes's letters shows how the "beloved bard of black America" was caught between the world he was born into and the one his poetry embodied.
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Yonghoon Lee in the title role and Barbara Frittoli as Elisabeth in Verdi's Don Carlo. (Photo by Ken Howard)
The Metropolitan Opera is presenting Don Carlo, a Verdi masterpiece, in the 2010 production of Nicholas Hytner. The conductor at the production’s premiere was Yannick Nézet-Séguin, now music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He is back at the Met for Don Carlo.
On Thursday night, he conducted ably. He did not suffer from the freneticism—the overpeppiness—that sometimes afflicts him. My criticism of him is a longstanding one, particularly when he is in the opera pit: a certain absence of gravitas or heft. Nézet-Séguin can be correct but light.
Also, there was a certain absence of swagger—Verdian swagger—as at the end of Act I. This swagger was missing in the auto-da-fé scene too, along with pomp and majesty. I should not say “missing,” though. It’s rather that there was too little of these qualities, in my opinion.
In 2013, Lorin Maazel, who died the next year, conducted Don Carlo at the Met. In rhythm and in other ways, he was mesmerizing. Spellbinding. I kept hearing in that period that the company didn’t like working with him: He was too slow in his tempos, he was too unaccommodating of singers, blah blah blah. The truth is, he knew about a thousand times more than they did.
For years and years, I heard complaints about Maazel from people who couldn’t measure up to his knees, musically. He didn’t care, though: He was too arrogant to care what others thought (and he was right).
In any case, my criticisms aside, Nézet-Séguin conducted Don Carlo ably and satisfyingly.
Assigned to the title role was Yonghoon Lee, a tenor from South Korea. I first heard him in 2012 when he was in Carmen. That night, he was terribly tight and pinched, even strangled. You could tell, however, through all the problems, that he had a potent and beautiful instrument.
On Thursday night, he had a shaky beginning. He was, again, a bit tight and pinched. He suffered some bad onsets, and also some sharping. But as the night wore on, he found a groove. He did some ardent, ringing, heroic singing, showing himself to be a true Verdi tenor.
In 2012, I noted that he was quite uncomfortable onstage, physically. I wrote, “It is not like me to mention something like this, for opera is primarily a musical experience, but the amorous play between Carmen and Don José was painful to watch. Once, when I knew it was coming again, I looked away.” Lee was far less uncomfortable in Don Carlo. Still, he is an awkward hugger (which is not the worst thing in the world to be).
Singing the love interest, Elizabeth, was Barbara Frittoli, the Italian soprano. In the early going, she was rather weak, and it seemed that she was husbanding her powers for the long haul. Even when weak, or underpowered, she was sweet and sincere. These are qualities that help make her an outstanding Desdemona (in Verdi’s Otello), and they help her as Elizabeth, too.
As with Lee, she gained in strength and confidence as the opera wore on. At every turn, she sang and acted intelligently. On Broadway, I believe, they have what they call an “’11 o’clock number.” Elizabeth’s aria “Tu che le vanità” is an 11 o’clock number, when Don Carlo starts at 7, as it did last week. Frittoli sang this aria well—she can do no less—but it was unusually inward. Too inward, I’m afraid.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the Russian baritone—the Siberian tiger—was in his customary role of Rodrigo. As ever, he cuts a noble figure. As ever, he sings beautifully, though his sound is often contained. One high F was really nice. And I must say, I had never noticed what a nifty triller he is as Rodrigo.
The voice is thinner now than it was, as you would expect. Sitting in the darkened house, I thought back to when I first heard him. It was in the mid-1990s, when he sang Russian liturgical music in a cathedral. (He had just made an album called Credo.)
Whatever vocal problems he encountered on Thursday night, he made up for with sheer operatic savvy. I think of a cliché: “consummate professional.”
Portraying Eboli, the bad but ultimately penitent princess, was Ekaterina Gubanova, the Russian mezzo. In her first big number, the Veil Song, she had some technical glitches. Some onsets were scratchy, some high notes were frayed. But she was personable, as she was all night long. By the time it was all over, she was solid as a rock in her singing.
Here is something that I should not say but will say—no one reads the Internet, right? In the story, Eboli is a looker—tragically, fatally beautiful. (“O don fatale,” she sings. “O fatal gift.”) In practice, the part is often sung by a battle axe of a mezzo. Gubanova is plausible as a looker.
In his longtime role of the Grand Inquisitor was James Morris, the American bass-baritone. One thing I appreciated about him is that he avoided caricature. His inquisitor was not a cartoon. He was not a nice guy, of course, but he was recognizably human, a believable character.
For Nézet-Séguin, and the audience, and Verdi, the Met orchestra played very well. I should single out the clarinet, Jessica Phillips Rieske, who employed buzziness, woodiness, and smoothness, as necessary. The Met’s horns were wonderfully stable, even when the music was piano. And the principal cello, Rafael Figueroa, introduced the King’s monologue superbly. He resisted soupiness and melodrama.
The big question for Don Carlo, I think, is, “Did the opera achieve Verdian drama?” Yes, it did, very much so.
King Philip was Ferruccio Furlanetto, the Italian bass. For many years, I and others have said, “This is one of the best portrayals in opera.” In other words, Furlanetto’s Philip is as good as anyone’s anything. At this point, it has virtually no competition. Furlanetto is now in his mid-sixties, yet there has been no slippage. If there had been, I would tell you, I promise. But it’s all there: the beauty, the gravity, the diction, the subtlety, the technical security, the pathos, the volume. Furlanetto at times sounded amplified. But his voice has a natural and potent glow.
I had with me a friend who is a relative newcomer to opera. At the first intermission, I said, “What do you think of the King?” He said, “I forgot that it was an opera performer up there. He was just the King.”
Let me close with an anecdote, which came to mind when Furlanetto dropped Philip’s cane, which made a terrible clatter on the Met stage. Years ago, I attended a master class of Marilyn Horne, the great mezzo. She had had some foot problem, I believe, and was using a cane. At some point, she dropped it, and it made the usual clatter. She said to the audience, “I used to hate it when people dropped their canes at my recitals.”
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In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.
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